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The Freedom of God

An excerpt from Kelly Brown Douglas' Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, a theological response to the murder of Trayvon Martin and other young African-Americans.

The transcendent freedom of God is essential for a black faith born on the soil of the oppressor's faith, directed presumably to the same God.  It was an awareness of God's transcendent freedom that enabled enslaved men and women to know that the God their enslavers spoke of was not truly God.  They recognized that their enslaver's God was as bound to the whips and chains of slavery as were their own black bodies.  Their enslaver's God was for all intents and purposes a white slave master sitting on a throne in heaven keeping black people in their place as chattel.  The black enslaved knew that this was not the God who encountered them in their free African lives.  They were certain, furthermore, that this was not the God they encountered in the Bible.  The God of their enslavers simply was not free.  The God of the enslaved, which they soon understood to be the God of the Bible, was free.  Doubtless, it was the African religious heritage of the enslaved that facilitated their profound understanding of God's freedom and transcendence.


Parting the Waters

Parting the WatersParting the Waters by Taylor Branch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Among the greatest books I've ever read. I don't think I've ever been so moved reading a work of history. Branch is a marvelous writer. I felt as if I was reading the story of the founding of the country and that this story and these leaders should be as familiar to us as our abiding fascination with the 18th century founders. He doesn't appear to pull any punches in describing the scenes of horror. The sequence of the first Freedom Ride bus is tense and harrowing, even when you already know the basic contours of the story. Everyone should read this volume.

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Caputo on Whiteness

Philosopher John Caputo discussses whiteness, the value of postmodern philosophy, and the role of prophets in this fascinating interview.

That is the attraction of postmodern philosophy to me, which is a philosophy of radical pluralism. It theorizes alterity, calls for unrelenting sensitivity to difference, and teaches us about the danger of our own power, our freedom, our “we.” I think that philosophy is not only a work of the mind but also of the heart, and it deals with ultimate matters about which we cannot be disinterested observers. So at a certain point in my career I decided to let my heart have a word, to write in a more heartfelt way


More on Coates

I read two good pieces responding to Ta-Nehisi Coates' book, of which I blogged over the weekend.

The first, by John McWorther on Daily Beast, discussed Antiracism as a religion.  The main premise is that educated white elites are part of an antiracist religion that has some benefits but also disallows certain questions and criticisms.  He takes Coates to be a prophet and writer of scripture in this religion.  McWorther's essay itself raises some provocative questions that should critique the way some progressive handle conversations about race.  "Real people are having real problems, and educated white America has been taught that what we need from them is willfully incurious, self-flagellating piety, of a kind that has helped no group in human history."

That essay directed me to a David Brooks column on Coates' book.  Brooks respects the book and encourages everyone to read it.  But he wonders if, as a privileged white man, he can criticize or question anything.  I did like the acute analysis Brooks brought to the book, demonstrating that a determinism burdens it:

In your book the dream of the comfortable suburban life is a “fairy tale.” For you, slavery is the original American sin, from which there is no redemption. America is Egypt without the possibility of the Exodus. African-American men are caught in a crushing logic, determined by the past, from which there is no escape.

 


Between the World and Me

Between the World and MeBetween the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I ordered Between the World and Me the same day I ordered Go, Set a Watchman.  I have yet to read the Harper Lee novel (I’ll likely get it read this coming week) but for all the discussion of Atticus and race, I can’t help but think that this is the more profound book and the one the culture should have been discussing the last two weeks.  I opened the book the evening it arrived and completed it almost 24 hours later, this despite one of the most difficult and consuming work weeks of my professional career.  The book is that engaging and profound. 

Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ letter to his son on being a black male in America, written in this year in which America has slaughtered so many black males.  I’ve appreciated Coates’ commentary and analysis since it first began appearing in the places I read almost a decade ago.  He is challenging, provocative, and eye-opening.  

I could quote gigantic sections of the book, but here are a few. 

The birth of a better world is not ultimately up to you, though I know, each day, there are grown men and women who tell you otherwise.  The world needs saving precisely because of the actions of these same men and women.  I am not a cynic.  I love you, and I love the world, and I love it more with every new inch I discover.  But you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know.  Indeed, you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you.  And you must be responsible for the bodies of the powerful—the policeman who cracks you with a nightstick will quickly find his excuse in your furtive movements.  And this is not reducible to just you—the women around you must be responsible for their bodies in a way that you never will know.  You have to make your peace with the chaos, but you cannot lie.  You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold. 

                *** 

Black people love their children with a kind of obsession.  You are all we have, and you come to us endangered.  I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made.  That is a philosophy of the disembodied, of a people who control nothing, who can protect nothing, who are made to fear not just the criminals among them but the police who lord over them with all the moral authority of a protection racket.  It was only after you that I understood this love, that I understood the grip of my mother’s hand.  She knew that the galaxy itself could kill me, that all of me could be shattered and all of her legacy spilled upon the curb like bum wine.  And no one would be brought to account for this destruction, because my death would not be the fault of any human but the fault of some unfortunate but immutable fact of “race,” imposed upon an innocent country by the inscrutable judgment of invisible gods.  The earthquake cannot be subpoenaed.  The typhoon will not bend under indictment.  They sent the killer of Prince Jones [a police man] back to his work, because he was not a killer at all.  He was a force of nature, the helpless agent of our world’s physical laws. 

*** 

And still you are called to struggle, not because it assures you victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life. 

*** 

                “We would prefer to say that such people cannot exist, that there aren’t any,” writes Solzhenitsyn.  “To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law.”  This is the foundation of the Dream—its adherents must not just believe in it but believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honor, and good works.  There is some passing acknowledgment of the bad old days, which, by the way, were not so bad as to have any ongoing effect on our present.  The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight.  This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands.  To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered vision of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown.  It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this.  But that is your work.  It must be, if only to preserve the sanctity of your mind. 

 

                There are already two people I’ve promised my copy of the book to read.  I’m going to recommend it directly to at least seven others.  I’m recommending the book, generally, to everyone.




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"So tired, tired of this drama"

The 26th post in this series, listening to our cd collection. 

Arkansas-Delta-by-Emilie

It was an early morning, and I was driving along a two-lane state highway in the Arkansas Delta headed for Helena, the place that Mark Twain wrote was the prettiest on the Mississippi.  I popped Mary J. Blige's No More Drama into the cd player as I rolled along past soybeans and cotton.

This was complicated terrain I was entering, filled with racial tensions.  The past was not glorious--one of the largest mass murders in American history occurred nearby in Elaine when white people massacred African-American farmers in the early 20th century.  The area had experienced forty years of agricultural recession and white flight.  Helena has once been a city of 40,000 and was now around 6,000.  Entire city blocks were empty waste lands.  As I entered Phillips County I noticed the signs for the upcoming election--all the candidates were white.  I knew that the population was overwhelmingly black.  The colleagues I met up with showed me neighborhoods without indoor plumbing, this in 2002.  

So tired, tired of this drama
No more, no more
I wanna be free
I'm so tired, so tired 

No More Drama is a great road trip album, no matter where you are driving, but it was quite fitting in the Arkansas Delta as I had my first serious experience seeing systemic racism in America.  

Mary J. Blige was the first hip-hop artist I fell for, being behind the curve for someone in my age group.  Michael and I both brought her albums into our marriage.

No more drama


And They'll Know We Are Christians

Post number twenty-eight in the series on hymns.

Done Painting

It was a hot and humid day in Helena, Arkansas in the summer of 2003.  But, then, all summer days in Helena, Arkansas are hot and humid.  Our youth group and accompanying adults had gathered for the evening discussion in the "boys' house," one of two side-by-side houses in which our mission trip delegation was staying.  As I sat uncomfortably on the hard wood floor, constantly mopping my brow in order to keep the drops of sweat from stinging my eyes, I was glad this local, African-American woman was discussing issues of social justice, for the major goal in a trip like this is to open the eyes of your predominately white and predominately middle class church kids from Dallas to the larger issues of race and poverty that still plague this nation in the 21st century.

As her talk wound to a close, and the attention of many of the teenagers had drifted off to other things, including, I'm sure, wondering if there was a way to be cooler and less sweaty, she began to sing:

We are one in the Spirit; we are one in the Lord.
We are one in the Spirit; we are one in the Lord.
And we pray that all unity may one day restored.

And they'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love.
Yes, they'll know we are Christians by our love.

Standing, she began to mark the beat with her right foot, and she was pounding her right fist into the palm of her left hand, as a couple of the adult sponsors stood and began to sing with her:

We will walk with each other; we will walk hand in hand.
We will walk with each other; we will walk hand in hand.
And together we'll spread the news that God is in our land.

And they'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love.
Yes, they'll know we are Christians by our love.

Strangely, it seems, this was not a hymn I knew from all my years in church, but I stood and began to do my best to sing along:

We will work with each other; we will work side by side.
We will work with each other; we will work side by side.
And we'll guard each one's dignity and save each one's pride.

And they'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love.
Yes, they'll know we are Christians by our love.

By this time the tired youth, whose thoughts had so recently been elsewhere, had risen.  Though few of us could follow the final verse, we were doing all right on the refrain:

All praise to the Father, from whom all things come.
And all praise to Christ Jesus, his only Son.
And all praise to the Spirit, who makes us one.

And they'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love.
Yes, they'll know we are Christians by our love.

So, it was quite helpful that we went round to the first verse, because now we were singing as one:

We are one in the Spirit; we are one in the Lord.
We are one in the Spirit; we are one in the Lord.
And we pray that all unity may one day restored.

And they'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love.
Yes, they'll know we are Christians by our love.